Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is 90 today, meaning that best wishes are in order. Yet what’s also called for is contemplation tinged with regrets.
Outsiders, especially those who, like the French and Americans, live in republics, simply don’t get the Queen. Nor do they get our constitution, which they foolishly say is nonexistent because it’s unwritten.
That’s like saying that, because a mother hasn’t expressed love for her children in a sonnet, she doesn’t love them. Her love is written not on paper but in the heart, and so – as Joseph de Maistre argued so convincingly – is any constitution worth having.
If a constitution does live there, a written document is redundant. If it doesn’t, a written document is useless and even slightly vulgar, like a marriage contract stipulating the frequency of sex.
Our constitution is the highest political achievement in history. That is so specifically because it wasn’t codified in a single founding document, because it represents two millennia of careful sifting of precedents and customs that withstood centuries of scrutiny.
These seeped into the nation’s bloodstream, each writing a word, a sentence or a paragraph in the people’s hearts, that eternal and most reliable depository for constitutional wisdom. Nonexistent? This cardiac document puts to shame any written one, be that the US Constitution or the French Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen.
Lord Asquith once put it with limpid lucidity: “… the great bulk of… our constitutional practices do not derive their validity and sanction from any Bill which has received the formal assent of the King, Lords and Commons. They rest on usage, custom, convention, often of slow growth in their early stages… but which in the course of time received universal observance and respect.”
The two things outsiders and, alas, some Brits don’t get are so intertwined as to be one and the same. The monarch personifies the constitution and the constitution embodies the monarch. One is impossible without the other.
Americans and Frenchmen often say that the Queen is a mere symbol, lacking any real power. First, that’s not exactly true. Second, those same people who pour scorn on Her Majesty worship their own symbols with nothing short of idolatry.
What can incense an American more than seeing the Old Glory abused? Yet a flag is nothing but a symbol, it has no other value.
The Queen is so much more than that. She sits atop a time-proven structure of power delicately balanced among the monarch, elected representatives of the people, and the unelected peers, there to make sure the balance doesn’t tip too far one way or the other.
What we’re witnessing now is a gross distortion of the traditional balance. The House of Lords has lost its historical role, with the peers now as susceptible as the MPs to political pressures, the Commons exercising almost dictatorial powers only made less so by pernicious EU diktats, and the Queen having next to no physical power. This isn’t to say she has no power at all.
As head of the state church, Her Majesty unifies the country within a vital institution, this irrespective of other confessions or religions practised on the British Isles. As head of the Commonwealth, she’s the Head of State in 51 countries with a combined population of 2.1 billion souls. In both capacities, she is the essential adhesive, for without her the Church of England would be disestablished and the Commonwealth wouldn’t exist at all.
But the Queen’s significance goes beyond such material aspects. For every state needs to have a legitimising raison d’être, without which its sovereignty would be subject to speculation and doubt.
St Paul taught that “all powers that be are ordained of God”, and one finds it hard to believe that such God-given powers are vested in parliaments and prime ministers. Yes, it’s possible to establish a line of historical descent linking today’s Parliament with the Witenagemot or our PM Dave with William Cecil.
But predating Cecil and even the Witenagemot is royal power whose origins are impossible to pinpoint to a specific date or event. Referring to de Maistre again, royal power goes back so far that we might as well assume it’s derived from God.
In other words, the Queen may not have much material power, but she is the current link in the historical chain tying our sovereignty together – she is the only constituent of power that unites the physical with the metaphysical. As such, she’s the essence of Britain’s political soul.
Even for that reason alone, divesting the Queen of her vital role by transferring her sovereignty over the realm to the wicked foreign contrivance going by the name of the European Union is an act of treason.
The British have the chance to undo it on 23 June, but one fears they won’t take it. Too many of them have become as alien as Americans or the French to our political tradition. Too many don’t get our constitution and the Queen.
But meanwhile, Happy Birthday, Your Majesty! Long may you reign over us.